Editors’ note: This adapted article was originally published in the Fall 2003 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, and then reprinted in the Fall 2008 edition, “Working Nonprofit Style.” Almost ten years have passed since then, but many of the article’s original findings concerning workplace engagement continue to hold true.

In 1974, social documentarian Studs Terkel published Working. The core insights in the massive collection of interviews with ordinary people ring as true today as they ever did. It is a monument, in Terkel’s words, to workers’ continuing “search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a life instead of a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” This is where the concept of “worthwhile work” begins.

Among the most critical issues currently faced by nonprofit managers is the recruitment and retention of good staff. Often, in related discussions we express concern about our inability to “compete” in terms of salary and benefits and career path. No one can discount these factors, certainly; but are salary and career trajectory what we should worry about as primary factors?

Recent research conducted in the for-profit as well as the nonprofit sector suggests we might do well to look to other characteristics of our workplaces for real answers to our concerns about attracting and keeping staff–and meeting some of our more general mission intentions. We like the research that goes straight to the source, asking workers directly what they value in their workplaces. Apparently, the answer has changed little in the past 26 years.

Norah Watson, an editor in a large publishing concern, was interviewed in Terkel’s Working. She stated, “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people. There’s nothing I would enjoy more than a job that was so meaningful to me that I brought it home.”

Nonprofits are all about meaning. We are organized around higher purposes–our missions–and we employ, as you can see in the first person narratives throughout this issue, people who have their own deeply felt missions that they hope to live out within our organizations. We should be the ideal workplaces for people like Norah Watson who want their work to have meaning—to be worthwhile.

But is Norah unusual? Is she the rare altruist in a larger population of people willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder? Research suggests not–not even in the commercial sector where profit is presumably primary.

What Workers Want

To update the picture to the present, researchers Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers report in their book, What Workers Want, on what workers long for in their workplaces. Through focus groups and more than 2,400 phone interviews, they found that “American workers want more of a say, influence, participation, voice–call it what you will–at the workplace than they now have.” The workers believed that it was primarily management resistance that blocked their desired level of influence in the workplace. This type of resistance crosses all sectors. The study revealed that workers long for a new “institutional form” that promotes cooperative and equal relations between workers and management in making workplace decisions.

“The basic message to decision-makers is clear,” state the authors. “A huge opportunity exists for America to increase the representation and participation of workers at their jobs and thereby to improve the quality of working life. Political leaders will find potential votes for such reforms; unions will find scores of potential members; business will find a better and more loyal work force.”

Workers from All Sectors Want “Meaningful Work”

In another recent book1, Tom Terez reports on the results of focus groups and interviews with hundreds of people from all walks of life about what factors in the workplace made work meaningful to them. While the study indicates 22 different factors present in a meaningful workplace, the five most often cited were:

  • Purpose: The mission of the organization must have a larger purpose–something beyond producing goods or services or even being the best. Employees want to feel instinctively that their work is making a positive difference.
  • Ownership: Employees want to view themselves as having a part in shaping how their work is to be done.
  • Fit: When employees know how they and their work fit into the larger mission of the organization they are more willing to put forth their best efforts.
  • Oneness: When there is a prevailing sense that we’re “all in this together,” working relationships are more collaborative.
  • Relationship building: The workplace should offer ways to build healthy interpersonal relationships that foster loyalty to the institution and its team members in promoting their collective efforts.

Additional Benefits of an Engaged Workplace

There are more reasons to provide the kinds of spirit and intellect-engaging workplaces workers want. Pat McLagan notes elsewhere in this issue that research indicates productivity and customer satisfaction are much higher in participatory organizations. When our human resource practices do not fully use the creative capacity of the staff to do their best for our constituents, then people don’t receive the quality, responsive service that they expect from public benefit organizations, and public faith in us is destroyed.

Additionally, significant research suggests that there is a “positive correlation between effective workplace participation and increased community activism. Specifically, it has been demonstrated that there is a direct relationship between workplace decision-making and community participation.”2 In other words, the benefits of adopting more participatory practices reach far beyond the immediate concerns of one agency’s productivity and customer satisfaction and build out the entire sector’s intention of promoting greater civic engagement.

If the arguments cited in this article about workplace engagement are right, nonprofits’ values-rich identity should make the third sector the workplace of choice for all kinds of workers. We have mission and purpose at our core, we value the participation and engagement of our staff and constituents highly, we believe in equity and in each person having a voice, and we want to encourage fairness and collaboration—or do we?

In his classic 1992 article, “When Management is the Message,”3 Thomas Jeavons suggested that nonprofits are legitimately held to higher ethical standards than either the commercial or government sectors. Jeavons warned that “the credibility of [their] statements about and suggestions for improving the welfare of others or establishing a just social order is sure to be eroded if, as one informant said, ‘there is an incredible double standard between… the way they want society to be in the external world and what they are willing to tolerate for their own staff.’”

Jeavons suggested that nonprofits sometimes betrayed their stated values “like justice, human dignity and service” through their management practices. See the box below for more specific descriptions of the higher expectations and standards that nonprofit workers have about their workplaces. These points can help you avoid the betrayal and disengagement that can result when workers feel their spirits violated.

What is Worthwhile Work in Nonprofits?

When we have done focus groups with nonprofit employees on what characteristics would be present in a worthwhile work situation, they have consistently come up with the list detailed below.

Mission and Meaning

An employee’s belief in the purpose of the organization is vital–this not only refers to a belief in the mission as stated but to a belief that the organization strives to excellence in pursuit of it and actually produces on its promise to customers and constituents. Employees want to have pride in their work and their workplace–mediocrity is not a big attraction for someone who cares about their own work quality. Further, employees need to understand the direct connection between what they do and the overall mission and purpose–and they need to have others truly recognize the value of their contribution to the whole endeavor.

Our sector by its nature attracts people with a strong sense of personal mission. For these people, job choices are about finding the “fit” between their mission and vision and that of an organization. They are committed to making a difference and are acutely aware when the organization doesn’t take its work or its ethical construct seriously.

Respect for Customers or Constituents

Because talented employees are mission and results focused, they want to have direct evidence that what they do matters to the customer or constituent. If the end result for constituents is not what is hoped for or promised, mission and results oriented staff often question the status quo. If the workplace does not have a culture that supports this type of questioning and in fact tries to shut it down as inappropriately timed or stated, talented employees will either leave or create havoc.

Organizations need to ask themselves: Are employees in direct enough contact with customers or constituents to be able to see the end result for the intended beneficiaries?

Organizational Premium on Continuous Learning and Creativity

Most of us are working in environments in which the elements are continuously in flux; the social, political and economic environment changes regularly, there is increasing diversity among those we serve, our fields progress in some way, technological advances are made that might aid us in our work. Talented staff keep up with these changes and are inventive in looking for answers. They share their ideas with those around them–they look at their own mistakes for their learning potential and openly share them as well. The sense of excitement that results from a constantly learning workforce results in real engagement in the work. Less engaged staff tend to fall away in organizations in which everyone is working toward the best possible result.

Employees Have a Share in the Future

Nonprofit employees want to be included on critical decisions–not only those that are of immediate consequence in their own work but also those in which a future is planned. This invests workers in the success of the organization and exhibits a measure of confidence that is an acknowledgment of their value, skill and personal mission intentions.

Critical Information Is Clear and Standards Are Consistent

In too many organizations, employees do not have access to critical pieces of information that would allow them to make responsible decisions about their work. This results in dependence. No really talented and motivated employee will stand for being infantilized for very long.

Additionally, employees are excruciatingly aware of inconsistencies in the application of standards. This does not mean that you must fine tune all your rules and enforce them unstintingly. To the contrary–to the greatest extent possible, employees must be a part of standard making.

Mutual Respect, Collegiality and Fun

Talented people like to work where they know they are respected and where their working relationships are productive and friendly. No truly talented person thrives in a workplace where they feel threatened or shut down by the organizational culture. Atmospheres that include dishonesty, petty jealousies, and gossip argue against open contributions to the whole. This does not mean that conflict is bad–it is vitally necessary for learning and growth–but it does mean that sneakiness and unfettered individualism will eventually shut down and drive out your best folk.

Humor is almost always mentioned as a component of preferred workplaces.

Authentic Forms of Acknowledgement

Employees want to feel that their efforts are appreciated and acknowledged. Overly constructed exercises such as employee recognition programs don’t work half as well as real immediate feedback when we have exceeded expectations or even just hung in through a difficult stretch. Environments in which acknowledgement comes naturally have a whole different feel from those that recognize employees either sparingly or in an overly contrived way.

Will We Deliver?

If the research cited in this article is right, our values-rich identity as nonprofits should make us the workplace of choice for people in every walk of life. We have mission and purpose at our core; we value the participation and engagement of our staff and constituents highly; we believe in equity and in each person having her own voice, we want to encourage fairness and collaboration–or do we?

We would do well to consider carefully the steps that we can take to create the places in which we all long to work and to consider the barriers that stand in the way of our attracting and retaining staff with talent and commitment.


1. Tom Terez’s book is 22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media, 2000.

2. See the description by Peter Lazes of “Project for a Working Democracy,” New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, December 2000, p. 3.

3. Jeavons, Thomas. 1992. “When Management is the Message: Relating Values to Management Practice in Nonprofit Organizations.” Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 2(4): 403-421.

Additional References

Freeman, Richard and Joel Rogers. 1999. What Workers Want. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turkel, Studs. 1974. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.